There are few things that make Walt Disney World visitors as passionate as the question of whether or not to rent a car during their vacation. Some folks claim that you absolutely MUST rent a car. Others are horrified by the thought of spending money on a rental when there is perfectly good FREE transportation at Walt Disney World. The reality is that, as with most Disney questions, the answer to “Do I Need to Rent a Car?” is a resounding “It depends.”
I was 100% in the no-rental camp for many years. During my first 20 or so family WDW vacations, we only rented a car twice, and those rentals were just because my husband was attending conferences on site and his company paid for it. I secretly laughed at folks who said that a car was necessary at Disney World. And then I stayed at the Animal Kingdom Lodge for the first time, where I learned that having a car would have saved me hours of frustration and waiting.
Staying at a different resort, one a bit further afield, made me realize that the car rental question really has many answers depending on a number of factors. Here are some things to think about to help you decide whether renting a car at Disney World makes sense for your family’s vacation.
What is my budget?
If you’re staying on Walt Disney World property, free transportation via Magical Express is included with your stay. This will get you back and forth from the airport to Disney World. Once you’re on property, there is free transportation to the theme parks, resorts, Downtown Disney, and the water parks via an extensive system of monorails, boats, and buses.
This means that if you’re on a super strict budget and don’t want to allot any money toward in-vacation transportation, then you can certainly get around Walt Disney World without renting a car. No additional expense is required.
What are the rental car rates?
Depending on the timing of your visit, you may find rental car rates to be extremely high or extremely low. Using Priceline or Expedia, I’ve sometimes been able to find small car rental rates at Orlando International for less than $10 per day. Even adding tolls and gas this would put a weekly rental in the $100 range, a mere blip in the cost of many Disney vacations. A reasonable price may be enough to tip the scales in favor of renting.
If you’re comparison shopping, remember to consider any membership programs that may give you a discount (AAA, Costco) or credit points (some airlines, rental agency loyalty plans).
How many people are in my party?
If you’re traveling with a family of more than four or five people, then you would likely be forced to rent a larger, and thus more expensive, vehicle. For a large party, skipping the rental and using Disney transportation is even more likely to make financial sense.
Where am I staying?
The cold hard truth is that some resorts have a better transportation situation than others. If you’re staying at the Grand Floridian, Polynesian or Contemporary, then you have easy monorail access (with no stroller folding) to two of the four theme parks (Magic Kingdom and Epcot). Similarly, guests of the BoardWalk, Beach Club, Yacht Club, Swan, and Dolphin resorts have easy access to Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. If you’re staying at one of these resorts, it will be easier and faster to use Disney’s free transportation than a car to get to many locations. (But remember, Swan and Dolphin guests do not qualify for Magical Express, so that’s another factor to consider.)
On the other hand, if you’re staying at Animal Kingdom Lodge Kidani Village or the Saratoga Springs Treehouses, you’re far removed from even the main part of your own hotel. Having now stayed at both those locations myself, I know that I will never stay there again without access to my own automobile. Guests staying at the outer buildings of the large moderate resorts will also want to think carefully about whether having a car makes sense for them.
If you’re staying at a hotel off Disney property and are thinking of using their shuttle service to get to the parks, be sure to ask many pointed questions about the frequency of service. The hotel’s answers may sway you that a car rental is the way to go.
Do any of the guests in my party have special needs?
Depending on their itinerary, guests with special needs may find that either a rental or using Disney transportation is more appealing based on their personal circumstances. Remember to consider this as you look at your options. You’ll also want to take into consideration any non-obvious medical or psychological needs in your party. For example, I have one acquaintance with a moderate germ phobia. She finds that using a rental car gives her more peace of mind rather than using the “public” transportation at Disney World.
Do I like to drive?
I very much dislike driving. This certainly played a large role in my family’s early rejection of renting cars during our Disney vacations. For me, giving up the chore of driving for a week made vacation time infinitely better. If you don’t mind, or even enjoy driving, then your situation will be different.
Will I be visiting other Orlando area attractions?
If you’re planning to visit other Orlando or Florida area attractions such as Universal Studios, SeaWorld, LegoLand, the Kennedy Space Center, shopping outlets, or the beach, then you’ll be much more efficient with your time if you have access to a vehicle. If you will only be going “off-campus” for one or two days of a lengthy Disney vacation, then you may want to investigate a partial stay rental from the Alamo or National desks at the Dolphin hotel or the Disney Car Care Center.
Will I be arriving in the area via Orlando International Airport?
Disney’s free Magical Express service is only available at Orlando International. If you’re arriving in the region via Sanford or Tampa airport or by rail, then a rental may be the most time and money efficient way for you to travel.
Will we be using a stroller during our vacation?
Some guests have issues with carrying strollers onto a Disney bus. If you find this to be a challenge, then you may want to consider a rental car. On the other hand, you’ll still need to fold the stroller to get it into the car. Guests staying on the monorail line will likely not have to fold a stroller to get to a monorail-accessible theme park.
Where will I be eating most of my meals?
When using Disney’s free transportation system, getting from a resort to a theme park is fairly straightforward. For the most part, you take a boat, bus, or monorail directly from the resort to the park. But getting from one resort to another is often more complicated, involving one or more mid-trip transfers. For example, if you’re staying at the Pop Century resort and want to get to a dinner reservation at 1900 Park Fare in the Grand Floridian using Disney transportation, you’ll have take a bus from the Pop to the Magic Kingdom, and then transfer to the monorail to the Grand Floridian. Whenever there are transfers, the possibility of waiting and delays is increased, making resort to resort transportation generally inefficient with the Disney system.
If you will be dining primarily at your own hotel (or an easily accessible sister resort) or at the theme parks, then using Disney’s system is generally fine. However, if you’ll be doing much of your dining at distant resorts, then renting a car may be something to strongly consider.
How long is your trip?
Some guests feel that if they’re only at Walt Disney World for a short time, then they want to be as time efficient as possible, making a rental more attractive. Other guests feel that a long stay means a greater need for a car due to the increased likelihood of off-property visits and dining. These are stylistic and personal priority issues you may want to consider.
Do I have car seat issues?
The free Disney boats, buses and monorails are not configured to anchor car seats. If you feel like your young child must be restrained at all times, then you may want to consider renting a vehicle. On the other hand, if you’re coming from far away and don’t want to deal with the hassle of a car seat, or the expense of renting one, then using Disney’s transportation may make more sense for you.
Are you coming from a home outside the US?
If you’re an international guest, there may be license issues that impact your ability to rent a vehicle. Additionally, if you come from a country where driving takes place on the opposite side of the road from the US, then you may feel more comfortable foregoing a rental and using Disney transport.
How old are you?
Many car rental agencies will not rent to guests under age 25. If you’re a younger traveler, Disney transportation may be your only option.
Am I impatient?
Or maybe I should say, “Do I need to be in control?”
Using Disney transportation is often quick and efficient, sometimes slow and plodding, but it is always out of your control. When you drive, you’re in charge of your action; with the Disney system, someone else is running the vehicles. If you can’t handle waiting or uncertainty, then a rental car may be a better option for you.
Do I have issues with heat?
If you’re traveling during the hot season in Florida (basically April through September), any car left in a parking lot will be HOT when you get into it. Not like a little warm hot, but third circle of hell I think I might die right here on the pavement hot. Seriously, I almost passed out getting into a rental in the Epcot parking lot in September just from the waves of heat radiating off the car.
If you take Disney buses and monorails, you’ll find that the vehicle is air-conditioned and cool from the moment you step inside.
Am I willing to take occasional taxis?
Taking an occasional taxi (to a meal at another resort, for example) can make not renting a car much more palatable. However, some people, particularly some single women, are uncomfortable in a taxi alone. You may want to factor your feelings about this into your rental decision.
Wrapping it up …
As you can see the decision process may be quite different, depending on a wide variety of factors. If you’re in a large party with several toddlers staying at the Grand Floridian, then Disney transportation may be the way to go. If you’re a single woman staying at Caribbean Beach resort, then a rental car may make more sense. But even with these fairly easy cases, there may be personal factors that influence the decision in the other direction.
Fellow travelers, are there any other things that factor into your choice about whether to rent a car during your family’s Disney World vacation? Are you pro or con rental? Have you changed your mind over the years? Let us know in the comments below.